We listen to a prophet’s voice speaking to Jerusalem in the first scripture today. Zephaniah had been predicting that a terrible day of reckoning was approaching because Israel had lapsed into the worship of foreign gods. At the end of his prophecy, however, Zephaniah directed a ray of hope towards the men and women who had remained faithful to the God of Israel. He encouraged them not to lose hope, promising that the day would come when God himself would come to them as their savior.
“On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem: fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior. He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love. He will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.”
The Gospel passage develops Zephaniah’s theme. The scene is the bank of the Jordan River where John was baptizing. We’re told that as John preached “the people were filled with expectation.” Those who listened to his message became fully engaged, feeling an urgency to prepare themselves for the imminent arrival of the Christ. The people asked John what they should do. He called them to compassion. “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” When the tax collectors asked him what they should do he called them to honesty and justice. “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”
John warned the crowd that the Christ was the Son of Man who would be coming with a winnowing fan in his hand to separate the chaff from the grain. The day of cleansing and purification was near – but so was the day they had all hoped for – the day the Christ would reveal himself and the reign of God would begin.
The scriptures throughout the weeks of Advent are meant to re-ignite our hope. We believe that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ. He came as our savior. So, what are we hoping for?
Jesus’ central teaching was about the kingdom of God. He said that “the kingdom of God is within you.” He said that the kingdom was like a tiny seed planted within each of us. During the weeks of Advent, we focus our hope on the seed planted within us. We hope that the kingdom of God may manifest itself soon. We hope that the seed in each of us will grow into a tree that’s so large that “the birds of the air can nest in its branches.” We hope that soon our prayer will become a reality. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
The Church’s liturgical year has begun. This is the second week of Advent and it rings with the poetry of the prophet Isaiah. Focus on his word. Listen closely. You can hear noisemakers in the distance. And if you listen even more intently, you’ll hear the commotion of celebration and tear-filled shouts of joy.
“Jerusalem! Take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory… Up Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God.”
It was the year 539 BCE. King Cyrus of Persia had conquered the Babylonian Empire and freed the Jewish people who were in exile there. They were beginning their journey back to Jerusalem. They could go home.
The Church uses Isaiah’s message of hope to direct our vision as we begin another liturgical year. Throughout the centuries the Church has held this text close to its heart because it touches that place, deep within the human person, that somehow always feels in exile. It touches that longing we all have and struggle to verbalize. We long for peace. We long for security. We long for joy and happiness. We long for many things, but ultimately, we long for home.
The Gospel for today is taken from the third chapter of Luke’s infancy narrative. In one beautiful run-on sentence he announces the Good News that our hope is about to come to fulfillment.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zachariah, in the desert.”
The next two Sundays we’ll listen to the words of hope proclaimed by the prophets Zephaniah and Micah. We’ll listen to John the Baptist sharing his message of hope. We’ll listen to the message that the angel Gabriel brought to a young girl in Nazareth. We’ll listen to her response.
We begin the first weeks of the new year by setting our gaze on the path that leads home. “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Happy New Year! Today’s the first Sunday of the Christian liturgical year. And the first words from the scripture that we hear today, from the prophecy of Jeremiah, are filled with hope.
“The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and Judah. In those days, in that time, I will raise up for David a just shoot.”
When the Jews exiled in Babylon heard Jeremiah’s prophecy, they were certain that it was predicting their liberation by a charismatic, military leader. He would lead them back to Judah. He would restore Jerusalem to its former glory. There would be peace.
This prophecy came true for the Jewish people. However, it wasn’t because of a Jewish uprising. The Persian king Cyrus swept down and conquered the entire Babylonian empire. Shortly thereafter he released the Jewish captives and even helped them rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.
The Gospel reading for this new year is also hopeful. However, its message is cloaked in apocalyptic imagery. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
This is the announcement of the Parousia, the arrival of the Son of Man, the judgment of the world and the beginning of the messianic time. The Parousia will break into history like a streak of lightening. The world as we have known it, with its rejection of God, its wars, its inhumanity, its injustice, will be judged and purged of all that resists the will of God. How can I say that today’s message is hopeful? It sounds so frightening.
In the Jewish and Christian celebration of the new year, the liturgy opens the door to the Parousia. We stand at the threshold, look at our world through the eyes of the Son of Man, judge it and purify it. Then we look through the eyes of hope to envision a new world.
Each year we repeat this cycle. We end the old world and begin a new one. New week the scriptures introduce John the Baptist into our commemoration of the new year. He is the first light of hope. His cry to us to “prepare the way of the Lord” is meant to motivate us to envision a new world, and to turn around our lives so that we might adapt to that new world.
The world is ever-changing, but not always for the better. It’s very important that the liturgy of the new year marks the beginning of a new and better world. It will be through each one of us that this world will begin to manifest itself. It’s for each one of us to prepare the way of the Lord in preparation for that great day when God will be all in all.
We have one of the most important passages in the New Testament for our reflection today. Jesus is standing in judgment before Pontius Pilate. The religious leaders are demanding his death. Pilate has little respect for the unruly people he’s ruling. He doesn’t know what they have against Jesus other than a trumped-up charge that he wants to be the King of the Jews. He knows that if a strong leader appears, they would support him in a rebellion against Rome. Evidently this man isn’t that charismatic figure and he isn’t going to lead a rebellion against Rome. Mockingly, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus’ answer comes without any hesitation. “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate couldn’t comprehend the depth of Jesus’ answer. He spits out a flippant response. “Truth, what is that?”
In a few hours Jesus will be lifted up on the cross, and from that kingly throne he will testify to the truth. He will “draw all things” to himself, and “through him, with him and in him” all of creation will give glory to God, the almighty Father.
The Feast of Christ the King declares the all-encompassing presence of Christ. We
must never forget his prayer at the Last Supper. “That they all may be one, as you Father are in me, and I am in you. May they also be in us.”
Today we contemplate our harmony with one another, with all of creation and with God. Reigning from the throne of the cross, Christ the King pours out his love, the Divine Energy eternally drawing all creation into the very heart of God.
For me, my God, all joy and all achievement,
the very purpose of my being and all my love of life
depend on this one basic vision of the union between yourself and the universe…
I have no desire, I have no ability to proclaim anything
except the innumerable prolongations of your incarnate Being in the world of matter.
I can preach only the mystery of your flesh,
you the Soul shining forth through all that surrounds us.
From Mass On The Earth Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ 1923
Throughout the eight years I attended parochial grammar school. I went to the 8 o’clock “school” Mass every Friday and Sunday. This time of the year, the end of November, always stirred up a great deal of anxiety in me. The scripture readings frightened me by painting a terrifying picture of a world in turmoil. The priest added to my fears by inevitably preaching on the Last Judgment. My young mind always had me burning in the eternal fires. Here are a few of the prophecies that scared me.
“At that time there shall arise Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people; it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress since the nations began until that time.” (Book of Daniel)
“Those in Judaea must flee to the mountains, and a person on a housetop must not go down and enter to get anything out of his house, and a person in a field must not return to get his cloak. Woe to the pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days…For those times will have tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of God’s creation until now, nor ever will be.” (Mark)
“After that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark)
“Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” (Luke)
“Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire.” (Malachi)
“But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark)
Church was frightening enough, but the world situation frightened me even more. When I was in grade school, 1954 to 1960, the United States and Russia were rattling nuclear missiles at each other. Right off our shores, Cuba was working with Russia to mount a nuclear arsenal against us. A nuclear war seemed inevitable. We even had nuclear attack drills in schools. Public basements were designated fallout shelters. Russia “conquered” the U.S. in the race to space with its launch of Sputnik. Mao Zetong’s communism was eating up
China. The Churches were suffering persecution in Eastern Europe and China. I feared that these events were the beginning of the end.
Today, as an adult, I’m no longer frightened by the biblical prophecies. I’ve learned that the Old Testament prophecies were meant to give hope. They were promising a day of reckoning that would come for the nations that threatened the people of Israel. In Jewish tradition this global purification of Israel’s enemies would mark the beginning of a Golden Age for Israel.
The New Testament prophecies reflected, post-facto, the horrific event of the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the 2 nd temple in 70 CE. The event was woven into the Gospels using apocalyptic vocabulary. It marked the end of the “old time,” and the beginning of the new post-resurrection time. It offered hope to the Christian community that was suffering persecution.
Today, these same prophecies are meant to give us courage as we navigate the threats and challenges that confront us. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. On one hand, it has compelled us to work together to combat the death and sickness it brought. On the other hand, this plague has shed light on the social inequality we live with that has weakened and hampered our response to this global crisis.
Today, these prophecies are meant to give us hope as we struggle with the present political turmoil that grips our country, and so many countries around the world. Today, even our Church is in crisis. These prophecies promise a new and better world.
This is the time of year when from the darkness, injustice, suffering and violence of our present world we turn to look to a new world to come. A world where we can work together in harmony to conquer our plagues. A world in which our differences enrich us rather that separate us. A world without threat or war. A world where children live without fear.
This is the time of year we’re invited to grasp hands with the author the Book of Revelation and rejoice in his vision: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
“I saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
We begin our reflection this Sunday with a passage from the First Book of Kings. A severe drought had struck the Middle East and many were in peril of starvation. In this account the prophet Elijah was about to enter the city of Zarephath. He was tired and hungry from traveling. He saw a widow gathering sticks and asked her for a cup of water which she readily went off to get for him. But he shouted after her to bring a piece of bread, too. She confessed that she only had a handful of flour and a bit of oil. She had intended to make a small bread cake that she would share with her son. After that there was no more food.
Elijah pressed her to feed him first; she and her son could eat later. He promised her that her jar of flour wouldn’t go empty, and that her jug of oil wouldn’t go dry if she extended this gesture of hospitality. She trusted the prophet and shared her bit of bread with him. Elijah’s promise came true. Her flour and oil lasted until the end of the drought.
Mark’s Gospel mirrors this account in the scene we’ve read today. He tells of an impoverished widow who came to the treasury of the temple to offer a donation. Jesus pointed the widow out as a model of selfless giving and noted that she had given all she had to live on.
We have two powerful images of generosity and trust to think about this week. But we also have two powerful images of spiritual bankruptcy.
Mark introduced the account of the poor widow with a scathing condemnation of the religious leadership. “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very serious condemnation.” He then ends the account with a disturbing proclamation. “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
Sometimes the Gospel message brings us peace of mind or hope or a joy in realizing God’s loving relationship with us. Sometimes it makes us uncomfortable. Both are important. Today’s Gospel makes all of us, clerics and laity, quite uncomfortable.
Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes is a warning to religious leaders about the temptations posed by privilege. The scribes basked in their privilege and entitlement. Some of them even used their celebrity status to extort payment from widows for advice they’d give them. They who considered themselves examples of holiness were, in reality, the spiritually bankrupt.
Though we can identify elements of this same dynamic within the ranks of Christian leadership, we must take care not to be complicit by buying into the dynamic. Pope Francis has often condemned this element in the Church by pointing to the presence of clericalism and triumphalism among the clergy. The Church, lay and clerical, needs to take heed. Jesus called for a servant Church. We all need to be on our knees washing each other’s feet.
The poor widow’s model of generosity is a meant to disturb every one of us, rich and poor alike. By offering all the money she had to live on, she was placing herself totally in God’s hands. This was a pure act of righteousness. Some of the wealthy people in the temple with her that day were ostentatiously placing their money into the large golden trumpets used to collect donations for the temple Their donations, too, were representations of their self-giving. But they offered to God only what was unessential to their lives – “their surplus wealth.” Their reward was a caressed ego and the admiration of the adoring crowd.
We conclude this reflection with a phrase that Jesus would often use after a teaching, “Whoever has ears, ought to hear.”
In today’s Gospel passage Jesus answers a question posed to him by a scribe: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Now, the scribes were the lawyers in Jesus’ day. They wrote up the legal documents for mortgages, loans, divorces and marriages as well as being editors, teachers and experts in the interpretation of the law. Often enough ultraconservative scribes and Pharisees challenged Jesus with questions concerning the law hoping to catch him in an unorthodox interpretation. But on this occasion the scribe seemed to be sincere in his question.
Jesus answered him by quoting Deuteronomy: 6:5, our first reading in today’s liturgy. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” He then added a second commandment to it. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18.
It’s interesting that just a few weeks ago we read the account of a man who ran up to Jesus, threw himself at his feet, and asked the question, “What must I do to attain eternal life?” Jesus’ answer was direct and simple. Follow the commandments! “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.” Exodus 20:12-17.
Jesus’ two answers come from the law but are quite different. The reference from Exodus is a legal, civil law: don’t, don’t and don’t. His referencing verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus are a call to act, to love God and neighbor.
I see two different approaches to the commandments here. One approach is related to the rule of law necessary to maintain a civilized society. It’s against the law to steal, or defraud, and if we do, we’ll be punished for breaking these basic laws. The other approach is spiritual in nature. Love of God and neighbor is essential for each of us and society to enjoy life in a deeper way, a way that mirrors the harmony of God’s creation. Both approaches are important for creating and maintaining a civilized society and for the individual to grow in holiness – God-like virtues. However, Jesus took a tremendous step and added a “new commandment.”
At the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples as they sat at table with him, “This is my commandment. Love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:12-13.
This is a totally new commandment. It isn’t modeled on civil law. It goes beyond a general call to love God and neighbor. It’s modeled on the very life of Jesus. It’s a commandment to love radically as he loved radically. Every day, Jesus opened his heart to anyone and everyone who needed the healing power of love. He reached out to the adulterous woman, the lepers rejected and isolated by society, the deaf, the crippled, the mentally ill, and political and religious enemies like the Samaritans. His commitment to love put him in dangerous opposition to the religious leadership of his day. His commitment to love put him on the road to the cross, and from that cross he showed us the meaning of his new commandment. “Love one another as I love you.”
This commandment is more than the call to love God and neighbor. It’s the call to love as Christ loved, sacrificially. There’s no more perfect love than sacrificial love. It’s, as Dante wrote, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
JEREMIAH 31:7-9 HEBREWS 5:1-6 MARK 10:46-52
We are graced with the wonderful story of Timaeus, a blind beggar. He was sitting along the road just outside the city of Jericho. It was a noisy road because many people came to vacation there. Many traders also came and went through this oasis city as it was on the trade route that ran from the northern countries of Iraq and Iran down to Egypt. Suddenly there was a great deal more noise than usual. Asking what was going on, Timaeus was told that Jesus of Nazareth was leaving the city and that a crowd was following him.
Timaeus knew of this Jesus, and he became so excited that he began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.” This was no ordinary cry for help. Timaeus was shouting a Messianic exclamation, “Son of David!” He wasn’t just trying to get Jesus’ attention he was declaring him the Messiah. But even the second part of his cry had a powerful, implied meaning. We use the phrase in the liturgy, “eleison.” It means to have pity or compassion. It was a cry shouted out by crowds as military heroes or emperors entered a city in triumph: Kyrie eleison! Lord, be merciful to us! Timaeus was calling Jesus the Messianic King.
People tried to quiet him but he kept shouting. He caught Jesus’ attention. Jesus called him. He was so excited that he threw off the tunic he had been wrapped in and ran up to him. A simple verbal exchange followed. “What do you want me to do for you?” The answer came, “Master, I want to see.” Ironically, the blind man saw what the people didn’t, that Jesus was the Messiah.
The short conclusion to this account is worthy of our attention because it contains an important lesson for us. “Jesus told him, ‘Go on your way; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.”
The word “way” is very important here. Christians were called, at the time of the writing of the gospels, “Followers of the Way.” Jesus is telling Timaeus that his strong faith has delivered him from the world of darkness. He’s free to enjoy life in the world that he was never able to see.
But that was only the beginning of his new life. He always sat at the side of the road listening to the world go by. Now he’s free to walk the road he sat beside – the world is open to him. Timaeus decided to take a very special road, though. He followed Jesus on the way. He became a disciple.
I’ve always interpreted Timaeus’ request, “I want to see,” as the Christian’s special prayer. Here’s a thought for your personal reflection. If you told Jesus, “I want to see,” what would you want him to do for you?
WISDOM 53:10-11 HEBREWS 4:14-16 MARK 10:35-45
Today’s gospel passage reports the well-known incident when James and John asked Jesus to promise them a favor. “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your left and the other at your right.” They asked this question immediately after Jesus had revealed to them, for the third time, that his passion and death were imminent. They hadn’t been listening to him. They were remembering the glory they had seen just a short time ago when they witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration. They wanted that a piece of that power and that glory.
I think that most of us give a little nod to this passage. “James and John, you should have known better, tut, tut. Shame on you.” And we move on. Well, at the time of the writing of the Gospels, this incident was a scandal. So much so, that when the account was later repeated in the Gospel of Matthew, the mother of James and John was reported asking for that special favor, not James and John. It was too scandalous for two revered Apostles to have stooped so low. So, Matthew put the blame on mom.
Why isn’t this incident scandalous to us? I believe it’s because we make this all about Jesus, not us. He told them that day, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as the ransom for many.” We listen to that and reflect on Jesus’ self-sacrifice, but we shy away from his second teaching, “Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”
Jesus was teaching that giving up one’s life doesn’t always mean martyrdom. It means making the gift of self, offering oneself to God, diminishing one’s ego and committing one’s self to the service of others, especially the poor. This is the way of the cross, the path the disciple is called to follow. This is the glory road.
Lord Jesus. I want to be your disciple.
I want to offer to you the gift of my self.
In my work and in my daily life, I want to redirect my energy towards others.
I want to diminish so that you may increase within me.
Strengthen me as I work to follow in your way, and following your example,
may I wash the feet of my brothers and sisters.
WISDOM 7:7-11 HEBREWS 4:12-13 MARK 10:17-40
In the Gospel passage today, Jesus and his closest disciples were about to set out on a missionary journey. Suddenly, a man ran straight up to him, threw himself on his knees and blurted out, “Good teacher, what must I do to attain eternal life?” No Hello Rabbi. No excuse me. Just right to what was on his mind. This man was overly-exuberant, even verging on the rudeness that sometimes clings to people of privilege. Was he expecting a quick and easy answer to a question as deep as the meaning of life?
Jesus, taken aback by the man, immediately clipped his enthusiasm. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” He then gave the man a quick answer to his question: “Follow the commandments.” He even went on to enumerate some of them. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t bear false witness. Don’t defraud. Honor your father and your mother. All but one of these were simple don’ts. The man proudly announced that he had “kept” those commandments from his youth. Then something interesting happened. We’re told that Jesus “looked at him.”
The verb, “to look at,” is used a number of times in the New Testament. This particular Greek word doesn’t refer to seeing. It has to do with perceiving – looking into the soul of a person. Looking at him, Jesus understood him, his motivations, his desires.
So far, life had been easy for this man but he wanted something more. He wanted eternal life. He thought Jesus could give him a simple formula to possess it.
Looking at him, Jesus perceived the roadblock that this man had come up against in his quest. It was his wealth and privilege. This man’s path to eternal life would be painful and challenging.
Lovingly, Jesus gave him the answer to his question. “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven: then come, follow me.”
The man heard what Jesus told him, but sadly wasn’t able to take that step. “He had many possessions.” He turned away from Jesus and returned, crestfallen, to his familiar life.
Jesus used this incident to teach his disciples an important lesson. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” This statement is as shocking to us as it was to those disciples. They threw their hands up in the air. “Then who can be saved?” The answer was simple – those who trust enough to offer themselves completely to God. “For human beings it is impossible but not for God.”
There’s nothing wrong with wealth. But, many times, wealth is marred by an attitude of privilege and self-absorption. Jesus’ parable of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man addressed the spiritual danger that can come with wealth. The rich man was so consumed with his own self-gratification that he never noticed the starving beggar languishing just outside his dining room window. Wealth and privilege can isolate a person from the totality of God’s world – a world of comfort and power and struggle and suffering and powerlessness.
Jesus showed the rich man the path to eternal life but it wasn’t the glory road the man expected. It was the road shared by the poor and suffering. It was the road of painful awareness of the world. It was the world where sacrificial love was the highway to eternal life.